Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hansel and Gretel - In the Spirit World

When I was still a teeny tiny little critter a rain storm swept over the tundra where I lived in a village of only 300 people with no roads in or out. I ran into my friends house to escape the rain and soon we were were listening to his mother tell us the tale of two friends who went into the long grass near the river, there they smelled something delicious cooking. Lured by the smell they soon met an old lady… who as you can guess turned out to be a witch. Although in this version of the story one of the two friends dies the other manages to escape across a river with the help of a crane.
Like these two children Hansel and Gretel were also lured by food to into a witches trap and at the end of their story they needed to ride on the back of a bird to escape as well.
Sure we can easily just chalk these stories to the need for cautionary tales, and indeed the Yupik people I grew up with loved to scare their children into avoiding doing dangerous things. (Given how dangerous the tundra was if we hadn’t been at least a little afraid of it none of us would have survived). But I think that there’s a lot more to these stories than that.

A Spirit Journey through the land of the dead
When they are returning home Hansel and Gretel run into a river that they didn't have to cross to get to the witches house, but which they must cross to return. In order to get across this new river they must ride on a duck over some water to get out of the woods. It was common for the shamans, the witches and the cunning to need to ride on ducks, swans or geese to get into and out of the spirit world, especially the land of the dead. Just as it was common for them to be led in the spirit world by a spirit guide in the form of a white bird, just as Hansel and Gretel were lead through the to the the witches house. Forests themselves were often considered such spirit worlds, or used to represent them in old stories.

It seems extremely unlikely that it is simply coincidence that figures so similar to spirit guides in the land of the dead are present in this story about two children who are starving and on the cusp of death. Indeed it’s quite possible that the white bird and the duck represent the fact that Hansel and Gretel are dead, that like so many shamans before them they must enter the realm of the dead, and find their way back in order to get their powers. It's also possible, however, that only Hansel is dead, he is the one the witch captures and to get him back his sister must follow him into the land of the dead and free him from the witch. ,

Keep in mind, however, that almost no shaman, no person really enters the spirit world only once, rather they tend to go back into the spirit world over and over again, and Hansel and Gretel may go back into the spirit world to save the souls of other children who are on the cusp of death, may journey back to fight the evil spirits which are causing the famine, to negotiate with the rain spirits, etc.

Ghost of their Mother
In addition to the shamanistic elements it’s also interesting to note that when Hansel and Gretel return home their mother is already dead, given that she was starving it seems likely that she'd starved to death. 

Two aspects of this are important; first birds often represented the spirits of the dead, so it's possible that the bird which lead Hansel and Gretel into the land of the dead was their mother. For example the spirit of a murdered boy in "The Juniper Tree" returns in the form of a bird to kill his murderer. When a man heard a supernaturally beautiful birds song he realized that his soul had left his body and he would die soon.

 It's also possible, however, that the mother was present in the witch as the spirits of the dead which returned would at times be most likely to attack their families, this was especially true of vampires.


Story ideas
A mother becomes a spirit of the dead and lures their children into the land of the dead in order to try to devour them…

A girls brother dies and she must enter the realm of the dead to free him from the evil beings which now hold him in their clutches

Two children die, but manage to escape the land of the dead and so can now enter the land of the dead to free others.

Read the Fairy Tales

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Writing Fairy Characters

The world of fairy is filled with some of the most provocative stories and interesting characters.

Fairies are not as they were depicted in the
Victorian Era. Rather they are deeply emotional
beings which control the fate of everyone.
The problem is that during the Victorian Era fairy stories began to focus on fairies as nothing more than whimsy. Now they are only depicted as nature spirits or as guardians of childhood. Yes at times they controlled nature. Certainly some of them had a special connection with children. There is, however, so much more to them than these things.

Fairies like all characters need emotional 
and psychological depth.

There is so much more to fairies than most people give them credit for. More than just nature spirits, fairies have palaces, shepherds, and more. In lore fairies taught humans how to build civilization, and were often the guardians of houses and cities.

It's through understanding people's beliefs about fairies backgrounds that we can begin to understand their motivations and emotions.


Understanding the Fairy Type

Nearly every fairy in fairy tales has similar fairies which are featured in other stories and other bits of lore. This means that you can begin to put together a series of character traits, and even a possible history for the fairy based on not just the events of one story, but of multiple stories and bits of lore.

For example the 'Dwarfs' in "Snow White" were called zwerg in the Grimm Brothers version of the story. Zwerg are magical shape changers, who tend to be very social, living in large underground cities, but some few of them choose to live in the woods. These few are different from the  others, in that they have a tendency to either want to help humans too much, or they hate them with a burning passion.

As another example the Banshee is an ancestral spirit who became a fairy but was so obsessed with helping their family that they constantly leave fairy land in order to guide their decedents. They are filled with such an all consuming devotion to those they love that their eyes are constantly red from crying over their hardships.

Finally Rumpelstiltskin was likely a lot like Merlin. He stated he cared about life more than anything else, and he didn't want just any baby he wanted a prince who would become king. So just as Merlin took King Aurthur from his mother Rumpelstiltskin sought to take a prince from a greedy selfish king.

Of course it's easier to understand the fairies type in depth if you can read the language their stories are actually written in. But there should be enough information on many of the beings in English to put together an interesting guide to any given fairy. However, I've found that when I need a translator I can usually hire one for fairly cheap to do a little research.


Create a Background

All fairies have a background, one which sometimes spans millions of years given their immortal lives.

You can figure out many pieces of a character background from what they are.

For example many nymphs taught humans how to weave, and helped them found cities which they than became the guardians of. So the background of many of these nymphs depends on the cities they protect. Imagine them trying desperately to help cities occupied by the Ottoman Empire, the Nazis, and more. Yet since they are forgotten there is very little they can do to help.

As another example the Tylwyth Teg of Wales were at times said to be a previous people who had been driven into the fairy realm by human invaders. This would many that many of the older Tylwyth Teg would resent humanity, though would also fear them. Not all Tweleth Teg are ancient, however, for they do have children. So imagine how children, raised to fear humans must feel. Especially when they first see pathetic hungry serfs. They would have to wonder why they should be afraid? Many of them play with human children in tales, or even help them. So the question is would your Tylwyth Teg feel sorry for the humans, angry at them and vindictive against them?


Add Character Traits and Psychological Depth

Now that you've delved into your fairies background you can begin to piece together what traits, flaws, and psychological depths.

I've listed some common fairy traits here.

In addition begin to look at the things your fairy does, how he acts. Try to find people with similar psychological profiles to fill out your fairy more than you usually can for fairy tales.

For example if you were to review the household fairy of farmsteads in Scandinavian countries known as the Tomte and than looked for psychological profiles that fit their activities you might look for common psychological profiles of farmers, as these fairies choose to live on farms. Than because they tend to prefer only to interact directly with children you can give them a bit of a Peter Pan Syndrome, or add to their psychology that they don't like complected people or situations. Finally because they spend their free time doing dangerous things such as robbing neighbors houses you could add some of the psychology of heavy risk takers into their nature as well.

Give Your Fairy Some Motivation

What does the fairy want? What is it that motivates them, what drives their overall actions? Every time a fairy appears they do so for a very specific reason, to fulfill some goal.

Fairies always have an agenda. They are the ones who control fate after all, so in essence the world really does revolve around them.

More than simply understanding what your fairy wants, however, you need to understand how they plan to get it. How does giving gifts to a poor peasant help them achieve their goals? How does causing someone to have a stroke aid in their plans.

Certainly some fairies live to cause trouble and so don't have a larger scheme, while others simply feel sorry for every poor person they see. But even without a larger plan these fairies still have some motivation, an emotional drive, and the stronger that drive, the more compelling the fairies drive is, the more interesting their character will become.

As importantly the characters motivation will help to create conflict and drama within the story as their motivations clash with others... or support others.








Friday, July 26, 2013

Ideas for Anime, Manga and Stories from Japanese Folklore

"There is an indigenous Japan, and elements of that are what I`m trying to capture in my work."
Hayao Miyazaki

All stories come out of a culture, out of the ideas of a people. So anime and manga grew in part out of Japan's existing folkloric and traditional roots.

Of course not all anime or manga is based on folktales, but such stories are useful when coming up with ideas for an anime or manga because there are so many amazing tales and elements within them. This is why Hayao Miyazaki is able to create such great films, because he has a great framework to start with in the folktales of Japan.

I'm hoping to help you to build your own framework for great stories using Japanese folktales.


1-Look at Settings

Much of what defines a person and a culture comes out of the setting they find themselves in. This is why looking through potential settings first can be a great place to begin coming up with story ideas. Start by looking through Japan's prefectures, pick one and read about it. Learn about its cities, its food and its folktales. Each of these regions has a hundreds if not thousands of ideas associated with it.

An example I've already used in another article is the Niigata Prefecture of Japan, in which

"there is the sense of peaceful villages surrounded by an often treacherous wilderness, connected by precarious and often dangerous paths for most of these stories feature travelers seeking shelter or people spirited away while traveling from one village to another. More than simply a wilderness than, the people of the Niigata prefecture were surrounded in folklore by a spirit world filled with snow women, oni, kami and more. This of course is true of Japan which had innumerable isolated villages."

By looking at the setting we start to form an emotional picture while also developing ideas for our characters.

Sado Island within the Niigata prefecture for example was a place in which monks were banished into exile by the Emperial Court, the city of Agato within the Niigata prefecture of Japan is the wintering ground for hundreds of swans, in the south one of the most popular dishes is a monk fish and mushroom hot pot. There
is a lake in the Niigata prefecture that is the winter home for thousands of swans so is filled at Christmas time and new Years with flocks of the beautiful white birds.. This would be the perfect place for a romantic moment, an odd fight scene (swans can become very violent), or many other events within a story.

The point is that if you have no Idea what to do at all beginning by reading about a specific setting will help you come up with ideas.


2-Read Japanese Tales and Lore

Japan has one of the richest and most complex sets of folklore and folk religions in the the world so it can take a long time to fully understand them. That said you can still gain a lot by reading a few bits and pieces of lore. In the spirit of traveling through this with you let me point you to some interesting folktales and snippets of lore.

"The Laughing Dumpling"
I like this story both for the character, a poor old lady who is obsessed with making the perfect rice ball, and because the plot isn't about some epic battle, rather its about how a cooks skill leads her to become a servant to an oni in a castle in the spirit world.

"The Bear Guardian" 
The story itself is fairly simple and straight forward, but it's not the story that interests me in this tale. Rather what's interesting to me about this story is that it shows how an animals spirit can become a tutelary kami of a village, a common theme in traditional Japan where an enshrined cow becomes a kami that heals skin disorders, a white deer becomes a kami of a mountain, etc.

"The Snow Woman"
A common story in Niigata involves snow spirits (sometimes as a woman or a little boy) seeking shelter and or food on cold winter nights. One family shares a bowl of miso with wild boar soup with a snow boy, another farmer gives shelter to a snow woman during a particularly bad story. In the story I linked to a snow woman marries a woodsman.

"The Cat Guardian"
Another short story that's full of possibilities for something longer. In this story a magical cat is sent by some kami to protect a young girl from evil spirits. With the right setting and unique characters this story could be a winner.


I'm continually adding more bits of lore on Niigata which you can see here.


3-Write down a List of Characters

By now you should have a number of story ideas and perhaps even a character in mind. If not, however, one should hopefully form as you begin to write down some potential characters.

As you make a list of possible characters think of how each one would fit into the setting you have chosen.

For example you may have noticed form watching anime's that the stories often include the polite friendly hero, Fairy Tale Archetypes. That is characters who find success, despite being weak, because they make friends with others.

In Niigata such a character might have the advantage of being able to make friends with a number of different creatures seeking shelter from the snow. Kitsune, snow woman, tanuki, have all in folk tales sought the warmth of a hearth and each of these beings would interact with the character differently.

4-Put Together Moments

Life is made up of a series of fleeting moments, each one beautiful because it is temporary, because it fades. In Japanese Mythology the First Emperor, an immortal kami, chose to marry someone who would die and so who was beautiful, rather than marry a less attractive woman who would never die.

The moral of the story is in essence that beauty comes from fleeting moments. Start thinking about these moments, read over the setting again to get ideas, think about how your character would interact with this setting.

Most of all become aware of the moments within your own life. Think about going to your favorite restaurant, about staying up too late, about looking at a giant moon, about feeling afraid as you trip your way to the bathroom in the dark. Any of these moments can become a scene in your story, a way to develop your characters.



With the Idea Done the Hard work Begins

As the final steps you need to put together a plot for your story, and than of course begin the long struggle of writing your story out. Still I'm hopeful that you'll be aided in this process with the use of the folktales and the setting you choose.






Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nine Strange Things about Fairies

1-People Once Believed Their Fate Was Controlled By Fairies

The root for the word fairy means ‘those who control death (and life);" in other words "the controllers of fate."

Fairies often gave humans their fate from birth (As in "Sleeping Beauty). In ancient times fate wasn't an abstract concept, the fate which controlled all humans, whether good or bad, was what the fairies made it to be.

Originally Fairies were not  prancey dancey little creatures beloved
 by little girls and derided by everyone else as too surgery. 
They can be fearsome and dangerous beings.


2-There are Fairy Traditions All Over the World

Because Fairy was originally a term to describe a type of being, just as deity is one can see many related “fairy traditions” from around the world, including the Kami of Japan, the Rusalka of Russia, and more.

Many of these beliefs are even interrelated. After all ancient peoples moved around and so their stories and beliefs spread. So even the Altaic People's Northern Asia and Japan and the Indo-Europeans in India have ancient connections with each other and with fairy beliefs of Europe.


3-Many People's Worshiped Fairies Before They Worshiped Deities

The word "temple" originally meant wood (forest, trees, etc). People in Northern Europe once thought that deities lived in natural objects and it was offensive to build temples to them. Even in Rome they didn't build temples for centuries but prayed instead to trees and fire.

Of course worship might not be a good word for the relationship as people would bargain with and even threaten to kill the fairies in order to get what they wanted. Nature fairies after all were also the ones who caused illness, in Ancient Rome people would perform rituals of civilization in order to scare nature fairies away to prevent people from getting sick.


4-Most Fairies Were Believed to Have No Childhood

Fairies and deities could grow up in a year, or might even be born old from the very beginning. Even fairies who had a childhood could be thousands of years old and so would barely remember it. This is why many if not most fairies have a serious case of Peter Pan Syndrome and want to get their childhoods back.


5-In Mythology Humans are Related to Fairies

Humans are born from Nymphs in Greek Mythology (Who are Zeus's Aunts). In Celtic Mythology Humans are the children of the Deity of the Underworld. Humans can have children with fairies and fairies often have children with humans.

In lore humans often became fairies when the died... Other times humans would turn into fairies without dying, simply by eating fairy food or traveling into fairyland. More than this some fairies would on occasion become human if they eat human food for too long.


6-Poltergeists are Fairies

Tree fairies could live on in the boards made from their tree. These fairies would at times haunt houses, in one Norse folk tale the spirit of an elder tree haunted the room of two children.

Fairies from Ireland to Pakistan were angered if a house was built in their paths and would cause trouble for the people in those houses, much as poltergeists are supposed to..

Rock fairies became poltergeists if they saw a human get murdered as they were sensitive to violence, so sometimes what we think of as the spirit of an angry murdered person might really be angry rock spirits.

Many of the things we think of as ghosts people once thought were fairies. Of course it's also true that humans could become fairies when we died.


7-Fairies Always Between and Betwixt

Humans who died at sunset might become fairies, caught forever between living and dead. Other humans who died in childbirth, before they were given a name, or other important periods of transition would also become fairies.

Fairies in general almost always seem to be somewhere between two extremes. The Nymphs for example are trapped  between lusty woman and silly childishness.

Fairies Tend approach people when they are between stages of their life which is why they are often seen by teenagers. Fairies often give advice in rhymes or incomplete gifts because they don't like destinations they like Journeys.


8-Fairy Love

Because fairies can see the future they know who they'll love before they even meet them. This is why they'll kidnap people to marry them or children to raise, because although they've never met they know who they are 'destined' to be with.


9-Fairies helped create and protect civilization

Many fairies preferred humans and cities over nature. Banshees and their ilk would help keep specific families safe, brownies would live in homes, grants would protect cities, while nymphs were the founders of cities.

Indeed people once believed that it was certain fairies who'd taught humans how to overcome the wilderness.

Further the reason a vampire can't enter a house unless they are invited is because the household fairy won't let them. The reason that many evil beings couldn't cross water was because the water fairies wouldn't let them (also because water was a divider between other worlds and they couldn't leave their's).

The reason we knock on wood is to awaken the wood fairy within it so that it will bring us good luck.



Monday, July 22, 2013

Heroes in Fairy Tales

Fairy tales were originally the stories of the peasants in societies which were divided into castes. So the heroes from fairy tales are different from other archetypal heroes in that they are rarely ever strong. Instead they use their kindness, hard work, cunning or simple luck to find victory.

The Fairy Tale Heroes lack of strength makes them a different sort of protagonist for most fantasy stories which involve at least some combat to achieve success.

In "Spirited Away" the protagonist is a whiny weak little
girl  who is pulled into the spirit world.
She can only succeed in saving her parents and getting
home by working hard and being polite.
Further fairy tale heroes are typically forced into their adventure by desperation. They come under attack by other worldly forces, their loves are kidnapped, they are starving and without work. Whatever the reason they are peasants who have no choice but to risk everything in hopes of a better life.

A common theme in fairy tales than is for a young person to leave there home because his parents can no longer afford to feed them, giving them two options, take any job they can get or starve to death.

A movie I like to point to which has a great fairy tale style hero is "Transformers." While not a fairy tale the lead protagonist in it is exactly what I think of when I think of fairy tale heroes. He isn't a fighter, rather he's a clever outcast who is thrown into extreme circumstances and so is forced to become a hero.

Fairy Tale Hero Archetypes

Hard Working and Polite Hero

Building good relationships is the key to success. This is true between people but it is also true of folk religions and fairy tales are often tales of folk religions. The moral of many folk tales is not to complain around the spirits, to be polite, to work hard. Take for example the story of "Grandfather Frost" in which a young girl is left by her wicked step mother to die in the cold. As she sits there freezing to death an old frost spirit comes along and asks her how she is. Rather than complain that she is freezing, however, she is polite and tells the frost spirit she is fine, so he takes care of her and makes her rich.

In "The Three Little Men in the Wood" the
protagonist only has a paper dress to wear but still
sweeps the walk way in the middle of winter
 for three little fairy men.
In modern times we see a similar theme in Miyazaki's film "Spirited Away" in which the protagonist Chihiro finds her self in the spirit world. In order to survive the spirit world a person must work hard, must be polite. This is in truth the only way that an ordinary human can survive in the spirit world with beings that are much more powerful than they are.

In the Russain Fairy Tale “The Girl in the Well” a girl finds herself in the “Other World” which exists at the bottom of the well (think falling down a rabbit hole such as in "Alice in Wonderland"). The protagonist in this case is able to earn great wealth in this strange land by helping it's people with their problems such as cleaning up after sheep.

When faced in the night with an Alp (a shapeshifting elf which causes nightmares, drinks blood, and causes illness one could try to negotiate with the fairy like being by offering to serve it coffee in the morning.


Tricky Rouge Hero

Lest one get the false impression that being polite is the only way to be successful there are the Trickster Rouges.

Perhaps the most famous of these characters is Robin Hood who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. Yet despite his fame he isn't representative of all of these heroes, many of whom robbed from the rich to give to themselves. In “Thumbling as Journeyman” the Thumbling helps some bandits rob a royal treasury in order to get rich himself, while also helping the bandits become rich as well.

Clever Rouges are the heroes of heist stories which have always been popular. Their morality may be questionable at times but most people love to read about them anyways. In modern films we usually make the targets of such criminals rich, greedy and nearly criminal themselves in order to forgive the rouges their theft. It was rare for this to be stated overtly in fairy tales.

Its never stated that the Giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” did anything to Jack, who was trespassing. There is, however, the assumption that the giant, being a man eating giant, deserves to be robbed.

Things are often left unsaid in fairy tales because there was an expectation that everyone had an understanding of the character archetypes with no explanation needed.

For example, in the Yupik tale “The Raven, The Sun, The Moon and the Stars” Raven uses his magic to steal the sun, moon and stars from the deity who owns them. He does this to help humanity who has no light without these things in the sky. It's easily assumed than that because the deity is hording the light of the sky for himself he is greedy and deserves to be robbed.


Peter Pan is another famous trickster figure, although unlike most he could actually fight and was just tricky for fun. - Peter Pan Character Image: Colored by *RenaeDeLiz on deviantART


Outcast Trickster Hero

Every era has a group of people who have fallen through the cracks of society. Becoming impoverished through no fault of their own.

In the industrial revolutions tailors found their job replaced by machines and factories. So there were a lot of previously skilled workers had no work. This is why trailers of often desperate travelers in fairy tales.

The Valiant Little Tailor” tells the tale of a Tailor who sets out and through trickery and cleverness is able to defeat giants and unicorns in order to marry the kings daughter.

Poor soldiers and veterans are another common character within this archetype. For a long time soldiers were only paid in the right to loot. Yet because they had traveled to distant lands they often new things no one else did. Further they were brave and strong after years of war.

The hero of “Boots of Buffalo Leather” is a soldier who has learned magic on his journey. Through the use of this magic and a bit of trickery on his part he is able to become wealthy.

Going back to "Transformers" we see the Protagonist as a similar sort of character. An outcast in the sense that he is a geek, teased by his peers. He gets the girl and saves the day by being clever and of course brave. In the third movie he takes on the role of new college graduate as his form of outcast, who much like the tailors of old fairy tales are the skilled people of society who can't get jobs.


The Trusting Fool or Outcast Hero

The comedic relief of the hero world, trusting heroes can also take on a serious role. They are one of the more popular archetypes in Japanese anime which still views trust and friendship as important moral lessons.

It is trust and an ability to make friends that allow these heroes to succeed where others would fail, even though these heroes are typically portrayed as foolish and weak.

One of the oddest portrayals of this protagonist type is in "The Fool and the Birch Tree." In this story the protagonist trusts a birch tree which he believes is talking to him. So he sells his cow to the tree but is later able to find a lot of money within the tree itself.

Jack from "Jack and the Beanstalk" starts out as a trusting fool when he also trades his cow to a strange little man for some magic beans.


Born Under a Lucky Star

Many protagonists have no actual qualities which help them succeed. They don't trust the right people, think cleverly, or do really much of anything. Rather they succeed purely on luck. Cinderella for example may have worked hard, but doing so got her no where closer to her goal. She was just lucky that a fairy was looking out for her.


The Selfish Hero
Although a rare character in fairy tales, The Selfish Hero occurs in one of the more popular fairy tales of “The Frog Prince” in which the Princess refuses to keep her promise to the frog and ultimately sets him free by trying to kill him. We also see a selfish hero character in "The Mari and the Lime Tree" in which a man threatens to kill a tree spirit if it doesn't make him rich.

Selfish heroes are hard for many people to sympathize with because they succeed by being selfish, by being spiteful and greedy and all the things heroes aren't supposed to be. One could argue that they are lucky as well as selfish because most people who act that way in fairy tales end up dead... or worse.